My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
A fly-tipped fridge at the side of the road has Her Little Ladyship slowing to an uncertain halt. His Little Lordship masterfully takes charge, although he still needs encouragement and backup from both of his field-mates. Fortunately, early Bank Holiday traffic is pretty much non-existent on Hendre Road and the sky promises sun, and light, summery winds. It feels too soon to be thinking of cooler times, but all things flowering are dying off to leave small green buds and berries. From a distance the heather across the mountains remains a sea of purple, but like the bracken it’s already starting to brown at the edges. The hedgerows, especially the blue-black berries of the blackthorn have me in mind of harvest festivals, sloe gin, and Christmas jam. The rest of the countryside looks either hopelessly overgrown, or shorn to within an inch of its yellow life as final hay making gets underway. We push on to reach Parc Mawr Woods, grateful for the shade, and by the time we’ve tackled the steep bridleway up to the old church we’re thinking longingly about the aforementioned fly-tipped fridge being full of cider, strategically placed in a hollow somewhere and magically hooked up to the National Grid. Perhaps next time we should think ahead and lower some bottles into the nearby holy well of St Celynnin.
On the mountain, there’s a welcome breeze to clear the air of biting insects and we canter over the undulating ground, Storm heading-up our small group and taking a strong hold for a while, but when the incline increases he drops back to a walk. And then a strange sight as long, horizontal skeins of sea mist obscures our view and cools the air temperature. Sheep and ponies appear ghost-like and it seems surreal to look down on the sun-filled valley below, and yet not be able to see much beyond a few feet ahead of us.
Back on the yard, His Lordship appreciates a wash-down with a big car sponge, at least I assume he does. Hey, I’m not an old Vauxhall Viva! Any perceived indignity is instantly forgotten as I fill his bucket with a scoop of pony nuts and a handful of chop – this described as soft grass and alfalfa with a molasses coating. It smells divine. Rather less so Storm’s sweaty saddle pad, which sports a thick furry layer of loose hair. The previous time I washed a saddle cloth in the washing-machine my husband had to suffer a week of hair shirts, so I set to with a stiff brush and hang it on the line to air. We turn out Ellie and the two ponies, and Lady chooses a slightly uphill spot to roll. This looks slightly incongruous, like a precursor to misadventure. I hope they don’t get up to too much mischief in this field which is bordered by a variety of trees, and sections of less conventional fencing. Storm likes to explore – probably in an effort to breakthrough to the orchard, recent evidence being telltale scratches at chest height, and a shifty look. On occasion, he has been allowed to graze beneath the apple trees – minus any early windfalls – being the only pony small enough to fit beneath the low, gnarled boughs. One time he wouldn’t settle and I crept back to spy on him, like secretly peering through the school window after leaving a fractious child at nursery. And he stared right back at me, head lowered through the hedge. Hey, I’m not wet behind the ears, you know. All the apples have gone!
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
The distant drone of farm machinery. The fragrance of recently cut hay mingles with fly repellant and hoof oil. Blackberry bushes are flowering, adding a creamy pink foam to the overgrown hedges, and I push aside long, waving brambles. It’s warm at eight in the morning but other than butterflies and biting insects, the lanes are blissfully empty without school traffic and before holidaymakers emerge. Nearing the crossroads by Crows Nest I hear the intermittent parp of brass instruments – not an oompah band in full flow, more like a practice session – and it has the pony stop, ears pricked, head and neck fully extended, eyes on stalks. After long minutes Storm decides that a baritone tuba and 76 trombones are not a precursor to monsters, and we trot on. A middle-aged man on a Power Rangers skateboard comes zooming down the hill but slows and grins, slightly embarrassed to be caught in the moment. I tell him he’s too old for kid’s toys and he takes in My Little Pony and my pink riding hat cover, and tells me much the same thing. Touché!
We make it as far as the riding school and cadge a comfort break. That’s hay and water for Storm and tea and gossip for me. The pony club have taken over the yard and Storm gets plenty of attention. I suggest maybe Storm and I could join in their activities for the morning and a deadly silence ensues as they scrutinise my face. I believe a mature child with a sense of humour is a wondrous thing, and if I ever see skateboard man again, I shall tell him so.
In Parc Mawr Woods the cool shade is welcome, if not the impossible incline. I dismount for a while and Storm follows me like an obedient dog until the greenery proves too much of a temptation and I have to chivvy him along. He still manages to steal snatches of grass and Rosebay Willowherb at every turn, and soon looks to be carrying a bouquet. Earlier in the week I spotted a badger on this same path in full daylight, but no such luck today. I continue to walk for a while – the oppressive heat between the narrow banks and the steep rocky going is more than enough for my friend to deal with, and he stops to drink at every watery trickle – up to the 6th century church on the old coffin route, part of the Pilgrim’s Way. When the church comes into view, we rejoin forces and canter for a short distance on the dry grass, before slipping through the church gate. The entrance isn’t made for horses and it’s narrow and awkward but poses no problem for a pony used to going through garden gates and other mildly unauthorised spaces. Storm immediately drops his muzzle to the ground and for a while the only sounds are of tearing grass, sheep, and the plaintive cry of a buzzard. I take a look at the well dedicated to St Celynin – reputed to hold great healing powers for children, and decide to take the long route home.
On the open mountain the sky is a stunning canopy of clear blue. It’s mostly downhill to Conwy and the elevation means there’s a breeze. Probably down to the fresher climate and the homeward trail but maybe my tuneless singing (Johnny Marr) also adds to Storm’s sense of urgency and he suddenly picks up the pace where the ground levels out. I egg him on and we fly over the ditches, scattering sheep. I guess I’ll always be an ancient little girl at heart.
More about St Celynin’s Church: https://janruth.com/2015/06/15/st-celynnins-church-in-the-hills/
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
Summer brings unwanted elements to our rides. Flies, youths on scramblers, moorland fires, speeding ice cream vans… if Mr Cool passes me again at that speed, his 99’s may well be shoved somewhere unpleasant… but the Welsh heather is beginning to flower, foxgloves stand like sentinels in the now profuse bracken and swallows dip and dive above the land like miniature kites. Our typically unsettled weather creates horizontal rainbows down to the strange mix of humidity, mist, drizzle, and intense sun. We canter up the track alongside the road at Pensychnant House, its bone-dry surface pitted by the movement of sheep and ponies. Storm runs out of puff halfway up and we trundle to the top with us both swatting flies, before gradually dropping back down to the Sychnant Pass; and a section of the road which winds between ancient walls covered in moss.
The walls mark the boundaries of the Pensychnant Estate, now a nature reserve covering almost 150 acres. It was created in Victorian times around the country house of Abraham Stott, famous for his association with the Lancashire cotton mills. Since Storm’s visit to Pensychnant House for afternoon tea the previous summer, I still imagine Storm and Lady (aka His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship) rudely scoffing a selection of meadow-sweet, dandelions, and clover, served by grooms in silver buckets. The ponies are still an item. They groom each other with gentle nibbles, sometimes increasing the bite until one of them squeals and they break apart. But Her Ladyship doesn’t get away with as much bossing these days and will politely wait until His Lordship has finished eating before moving in to hoover up his scraps.
Along the road, the enormous variety of trees bordering the walls form a dense golden green canopy. I don’t often ride along here as it feels enclosed and narrow. Approaching traffic can be scary if it’s big and fast, especially motorbikes and farm machinery, since the engine noise creates a thunderous echo. Today the road feels quiet and inviting and I make a last-minute decision to trot on. Thanks to the absence of traffic, the old walls, the sound of Storm’s hooves, the birdsong, and the sun dappling through the trees easily transports me back a hundred years. It’s less than a mile to where the road opens out again at the base of Conwy Mountain, and then it twists and turns rapidly downhill towards Dwygyfylchi and the coast.
I jump off here and scramble up to the gate leading onto the Pensychnant bridleway, just as a tanker roars past and spoils all the imagery. Once on the other side of the gate, it’s the most lovely amble up through the estate onto the open Carneddau. We canter where the grass tracks even out before facing the temperamental iron gate at the top. I jump off, loop the reins around my arm. At the point of dragging the gate open, Storm makes a sudden lunge for some grass and I almost stumble into a sea of stinging nettles. But he stands patiently for me to remount, chewing furiously, and is forgiven. A moderately fresh, full-on wind has us turning sharp left, before ambling down towards the lake at Gwern Engen. (I set my first novel here, Wild Water, and called my imaginary property Gwern Farm.) Lots of Carneddau mares and foals are grazing or sunbathing by the water, and Storm stands like a rock when a mare and two curious foals come within nose-touching distance.
Despite my mottled hand and the lack of Victorian manners, summer brings some beautiful elements to our rides.
The gate by the cattle-grid on Sychnant Pass is so heavy I fear if I misjudge it the whole thing will swing into us before we can get through, but Storm seems to understand its brutal mechanism. Not so much the two men who tried to carry an especially long roll of heavily patterned Axminster into the church on Hendre Road. He still remembers the day we saw a real life pushmi-pullyu and casts a wary eye towards the building as we trot past; an incident which is known only to Storm and I as The Day of the Debacle at the Tabernacle. We continue the length of Hendre Road to the very top, where the lane narrows significantly with no passing places and it’s a bit like running the gauntlet, and so dark beneath the trees the camera flash goes off and momentarily lights up the back of Storm’s ears.
Meeting farm machinery here is the worst possible scenario. Inevitably, we come face to face with a tractor devouring the overgrown hedges and so double-back to a farm entrance to wait for the dragon to roar past. As we climb towards the open hillside, there’s a stillness which is somehow symbolic to the vast, historic wilderness of the Carneddau. And yet, it’s not silent. Birdsong, bleating, streams surging over rocks, the high-pitched whinnies of wild ponies. The route across the mountainside is slow going but Storm is familiar with the hard, rock-strewn tracks and I let him pick his own way until we get to a grassy stretch where we can canter.
For me, this is the best kind of riding in that it epitomises freedom and simplicity. And although my solo roaming is not without challenge, ostensibly it feels more natural to the spirit of the horse. I don’t venture off the tracks through any dense vegetation as there are reports of an increase in adders, and an encounter with one of these has the ability to turn the entire day on its head. We’re rarely, completely alone on this well-worn route into Conwy and soon come across a group of schoolchildren on a field trip. Oh, isn’t he sweet, isn’t he cute! The girls take turns to pat Storm. The boys hang back and only want to know how fast he can go. And it’s a day for mountain bikers. Some of them flying at great speed over the ground, the bikes not fully visible down to the undulating lay of the land. Storm imagines they must be riding horses and breaks into a canter. Another group are lost and want to know how to get to the stone circles above Penmaenmawr. And then, when we come across three men, braced in a line having a wee behind a drystone wall, they laugh and wave. We skirt the lake, drop down onto the Sychnant Pass again and the pony shoots across the inviting, flat area we call the ‘naughty-grass’, for good reason. The last canter facing home is always a strong one, but I find it wise to remember that it involves a telegraph pole and a perilous downward slope onto the road.
It takes us three hours to complete this circuit, including stops to chat, and time to stare. Back on home ground, Storm demands his Pot Noodle. This is a mug which looks like a Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle, and something we use as a measuring device for pony nuts. I think it originally contained a Pot Noodle Christmas Dinner. Obviously, this vile concoction was bought as a joke. Clearly, there’s a use for everything. Even heavily patterned Axminster.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018
Chapter 8: Storm Force
Debbie and Fraser had always kept pigs at Merchlyn but on this occasion they were behind the hedge alongside the road, and there were plenty of them. The noise and their smell was unmistakable on the breeze. Pigs are historically a natural predator of anything equine and since my mount was a New Forest pony – one of our ancient native breeds – and since the forest had also been the historical habitat of the wild boar – maybe Emily already had a strong fear of all things porcine in her DNA.
Most horses recoil at the smell of pigs but Em’s reaction was unprecedented. There was no way she was walking past that hedge. The frustration of it! I tried gentle coercing, I tried firm coercing. I tried for twenty minutes to walk her past those pigs but my efforts only resulted in the mare trying to spin round, or threaten to rear. Not good. She was wild-eyed by the time my husband caught up with us on his road bike – maybe a lucky coincidence he’d chosen the same route as us, or perhaps he’d not agree. I decided to jump off and lead the mare, thinking that once we were downwind of the smell she’d get over the whole incident.
But even after half a mile she was still prancing, snorting, sweating, and rolling the whites of her eyes. And I felt less in control walking by her side than I had been on her back, but remounting proved tiresome as she continued to spin round, head up, nostrils wide, eyes bulging while she scanned the horizon. I just couldn’t hold her still long enough for me to get a foot in the stirrup, and so I had to resort to standing on a low wall and then somehow launching myself across the saddle while husband led her past. Somehow, I scrambled on and we pranced along the lane while I struggled to get both feet in the stirrups and gather up the reins, realising that the only other route home to avoid the pigs was up through Parc Mawr. Husband wasn’t happy about this, but I sent him on ahead to open the gate for us and we had a silly conversation about why I was riding Em in the first place. Well, because I loved her and anyway, she’d never done this before! He sighed, duly propped up his bike by a tree, hitched open the heavy gate and shook his head as we skittered through. Bikes don’t have any of these weird issues, he muttered.
I reasoned that if Emily fled through the woods and we parted company then at least she wouldn’t be able to get onto the road. Once inside, I allowed her to shoot up the steep path right to the top – not something I’d usually ask of a horse but I was unsure whether to risk the lower path as its gentle undulation might encourage flight. And I wondered if the extra energy required to climb to the top might help to take the edge off her fear. Not one bit. At the top, I made her stand to recover, flanks heaving and running with sweat. Eventually, we turned right and headed through the trees and the mare stayed in a traumatised walk the entire time until we arrived at the far entrance, where another fit of anxiety meant she wouldn’t allow me to open the gate. Instead of standing close to the handle, she backed up the bank and shook her head, as if I was asking too much of her, or maybe she felt too close to her source of discomfort again, since technically, we’d doubled back on ourselves. Judging by her distended nostrils, I’ve no doubt she could still smell the objects of her distaste.
Reluctantly, I dismounted yet again in order to lead her safely through the narrow entrance, then we had another dance in the car park, her reins slippery with sweat. I led her into the RDA yard hoping to find someone… anyone… to either hold the mare still or give me a leg-up but typically, I’d hit on a Marie Celeste moment. Not having a better idea, I clambered onto the picnic table while Em stood four-square, ears and eyes fixated in the direction of the pigs. Back onboard, I chose the long route home along the lanes hoping she might relax and cool off, but no… even back on home ground in the barn she remained so wound up that I struggled to unfasten the tiny buckles of her bridle and loosen her girth in the fading December light. She looked as if she’d had several buckets of water thrown over her, her long winter coat drenched in fear.
Throughout all of this, I surprised myself by remaining calm and matter-of-fact. I have no idea where this mindset came from but it proves that in times of serious stress it is possible to engage mind over matter and deal with the immediate situation. At no time did I feel especially worried about Em’s behaviour and I believe it was this mindset that allowed us both to arrive home safely. She was simply frightened. If I’d panicked or got cross with her, I suspect the mare would have panicked, too. But then, like the drawing of a hypothetical line, we had several days of snow and ice, halting any progress either backwards or forwards. I did ride Em again but she wasn’t the same. Her fear began to manifest itself in other animals, and she felt constantly anxious and grew nappy and difficult, just in case I faced her in the direction of Public Enemy Number One. I suggested to her owner that we employ animal behaviourist Guido, to help. Jayne agreed it was our only option, but then over Christmas we had another discussion leading to Jayne’s decision to retire Emily once again. I did understand her reasons as they echoed some of mine – mostly the potential cost – but it did seem such a sad waste of a lovely mare.
I wasn’t sure what came next, but then Wizard happened. Down to the generosity and goodwill of the community, New Year’s Day saw me astride a Welsh Section D gelding belonging to Penny Wingfield. To the uninitiated, Welsh ponies and cobs are divided into four types and Section D is the big guy. Everyone told me I’d love Wizard but my gut feeling was slightly at odds with this presumption. In company I’m sure he rode quite differently, but for me, Wizard was a little on the strong side and, combined with the elevation in his gait, I did occasionally feel compromised, especially during those tricky downward transitions on uneven ground.
A handsome horse, Wizard was rather taller than ideal for me but I rode him solo twice a week for around three months, and we mostly rubbed along, although once on the open hillside by Pensychnant Lake he tried his best to get the upper hand, especially when we turned for home. Several people walking dogs stood well back, slack-jawed with apprehension as we whizzed by at a gallop rather faster than I would have preferred. Wizard could be a joy to ride but occasionally, he’d argue over my directional decisions. One day he planted his feet for some fifteen minutes in Parc Mawr before agreeing to move forwards. Later, by way of revenge, he managed to execute an especially sudden and athletic pirouette at sight of an Asda bag in the hedge, and I hit the tarmac. During this rude eviction the air vest sprang into action with a loud pop, and I rolled across the road like Mr Blobby. I don’t know if Wizard was horrified at the sight of an inflated me or the sudden noise I’d emitted, but he clearly thought it safer (and way more fun) to scarper at this point.
Other than feeling mildly winded and stupid, I was completely unhurt but I did worry about Wizard – who’d disappeared without trace. I asked every passing car if they’d seen a large, black cantering horse but no one had… what the hell? Had he jumped a hedge into a field? Hitched a lift in a passing trailer? Maybe he had wizardly skills in disappearing acts… but no, a couple of urgent phone calls confirmed that he’d arrived safe and sound at Merchlyn Forge a mile away and was enjoying a hay-net courtesy of Debbie Youngson. Relieved, I accepted a lift from a passing farmer travelling the same way and Wizard was duly collected and ridden home. All things considered I decided to retire from the charms of Mr Whizz, deciding there and then that prospects for rambling solo across remote places weren’t looking good. Jayne Moore and Penny Wingfield were the nicest of horsey owners and I felt mortally disappointed that neither of their horses had quite worked out for me. Fair to say that husband was by now thoroughly perplexed as to why I insisted on this path of dangerous recreation. The simple answer is that of course these events don’t represent the full picture. When equine partnerships work well, it’s quite simply the best feeling in the world. Husband wasn’t convinced, but he duly replaced the £17 cartridge in the air jacket.
In other equine areas, I experienced rather more success. The Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship (WITH) ran a two-day EFL (Equine Facilitated Learning) training course for those wishing to qualify as an assistant to a trained therapist. Unlike the RDA which is mostly about physical disabilities and riding the horse, EFL is all about mental and emotional well-being; about assisting clients to discover ways of helping themselves through the medium of interacting with horses. Some of the research supporting this sounds improbable and someone with long-term depression or post-traumatic stress disorder could be forgiven for feeling skeptical, but in the vast majority of cases it works, and it’s effective for those suffering a variety of diverse mental health issues.The session plans developed by WITH are also beneficial for those who want to develop skills in leadership, communication, and confidence. Put simply, it can give someone the courage to look in the mirror and love what they see. Horses accept us for who we are, and because they are never incongruent they can also encourage us towards healthy change. Undoubtedly, there is something on the inside of a horse that is good for people and, sometimes it’s as simple as the endorphins produced from aligning our human heartbeat to that of an equine heartbeat.
In preparation for my training course in April, I took a refresher lesson in lunging with Wendy Tobias-Jones of Conwy Community Riding School and head coach for Conwy Gogarth RDA. As a WITH assistant, my role would be to interpret the reactions of the horse during the therapy session. In order to facilitate this, I might be expected to demonstrate skills in free-schooling, using a round pen, or lunging. Nutmeg proved an interesting partner and it took a while for my coordination to remember how to handle a long schooling whip and a lunge line with a lively horse on the end of it. The real bonus though was the natural horsemanship session we did at the end, aka the Monty Robert’s join-up technique. And the ‘feels’ were undeniable when Nutmeg – free from all restraint by then – chose to follow me so closely I could feel her breath on the back of my neck. For anyone suffering with confidence issues I defy them not to feel a surge of joy and power when a horse chooses to react this way of its own free will. And it’s a valuable insight into how an equine mind is programmed to that of trust and survival, and how it can affect our own persona. In that moment, Nutmeg saw me as a clear leader.
I completed and passed the preliminary WITH course at Bryn Gaseg, Anglesey, and later in the year went on to assist Jackie Williams help a client suffering with PTSD by practising the EFL programme. The results were astonishing. More on Jackie and Bryn Gaseg: https://janruth.com/2017/11/18/with-or-without-you/
Some of these experiences went into GIFT HORSE: A time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the consequences of human error. Of course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flatmate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay… I hope my so far modest experiences with equine therapies adds some reality and richness to the story.
But what of my own story? I’d almost given up hope of a regular ride but in late April I received a tentative message… something about a share in a pony and would I be interested? A pony I knew rather well from my days of riding with Debbie Youngson, a pony who in fact still resided at Merchlyn on livery. Storm. A trial ride was arranged and one summery evening in May I rode to the Ty Gwyn pub in Rowen, where husband arranged to buy me a shandy. When Storm tried to follow me into the pub I knew we were going to get along just fine. Now, that one looks a lot safer, husband declared knowledgeably, pint in hand.
A Dartmoor who looked more like an Exmoor with a cream muzzle, a dun coat with a cream belly, black legs and a black mane and tail. A pint-sized pony with a big personality, Storm was a force to be reckoned with. At something like 12.5 hands I wasn’t too worried that I looked out of place on him thanks to my short legs, but at 9 stone I was probably at his top weight. Down to the best motivation I’d had in a while, I lost a stone over the course of that summer and came to appreciate the ease of jumping on and off a pony exactly like I used to when I was twelve. Actually, I probably looked about twelve from the rear in my pink hi-vis, but all well and good if this image had motorists extra cautious on approach. I can only imagine their thoughts on passing me though and maybe glancing in their rearview mirror to see a colourful, child-sized rider in her sixties. But none of that mattered. Difficult gates lost their power to determine a route. Dismounting and mounting was easy peasy, no need to look for a rock to stand on or hop about while an impatient horse tried to move off. Sometimes, though, Storm would turn and look at me when I stuck my foot back in the stirrup. Come on, old woman get on, get on! But generally he was undeniably forgiving.
Through a hot, dry summer, we roamed the hills, the woods, and the lanes around Henryd and Rowen. He’d go anywhere I pointed him, never spooked, never napped, and other than drawing the line at sharing passing space with dragons (aka massive tractors and trailers) he exhibited a sensible approach to anything we encountered. He showed a passing disdain for the pigs, but nothing more. Occasionally we’d come across a stubble field with an open gate and we’d canter across it, easily hidden behind tall hedges profuse with summer foliage. Storm was always up for a spot of mild mischief, and I knew I had a great partner in crime when he pricked his ears at the prospect of galloping over mildly forbidden ground. Beyond cantering, though, I generally let him set the pace. Parc Mawr Woods and Tal y Fan is hard on ridden horses and ponies; the ground rough, the inclines steep. Sometimes, I’d dismount and we’d walk side by side, both of us panting in the dry heat. But there were specific places where he liked to gallop, especially on level grassy areas or sometimes uphill, and I let him fly. I never pushed him, but then I doubt he would have allowed me to.
This typical pony personality extended to the field where he escaped on a regular basis. Merchlyn favoured strip grazing; a method of rotating the land using electric fencing. Unfortunately the height of this was set at chest level for the horses and didn’t really accommodate Storm, who easily slipped underneath. He had no shame in performing this act before my very eyes, tossing the length of tape up and over his head, pausing at the mild zap across his withers before continuing on his way to pastures new with a defiant little trot and a wary eye. I’d often find him knee-deep and big-bellied in long grass and buttercups; the equine equivalent of gorging on a Michelin Star menu. Sometimes, he’d tear round the perimeter of the forbidden paddocks and throw in a buck. The livery horses, some of whom could easily step over the sagging tape but wouldn’t dare, looked on in bewildered admiration.
But there came a time when his escapes led to a difficult situation at Merchlyn and his owner, Sue, decided to have him back home, just a few miles away in Conwy. This was a good move for me since the Sychnant Pass was my old stamping ground with fond memories of Pinewood Stables and Conwy Mountain. The terrain is a little less harsh by the coast and the variety of tracks offer plenty of freedom for mountain and beach riding. Storm’s new pasture was a secluded area of land behind a neighbouring property. As a bonus there were two mares in close vicinity, one of whom he liked to watch closely through the hedge. Discovering the hollow beneath the trees where he’d lain down to sleep, was the stuff of childhood fiction. Close by, the beehives hummed, the occupants busy with a variety of pollen in the gardens and beyond. Rich and dark, the honey gleaned from these pickings created a hillside garden in a jar, the perfume and flavour a distinct floweriness combined with the earthiness of our local Welsh heather.
Storm’s grazing was easily managed, along with occasional supervised spells in the orchard; an atmospheric, rambling place with disused greenhouses, several low, gnarled fruit trees, and a variety of overgrown vegetable beds. When arrangements were made for Storm to move in permanently with the mares, his domain was complete. Not that he saw himself as a small, 16 year old gelding. For a while Storm’s behaviour was more that of a virile 16 hand stallion. The older, taller, thoroughbred mare took no notice of him whatsoever, while the younger, smaller mare enjoyed egging him on. When she came into season and riding necessitated that he leave her side, Storm would stop and call to her at random moments in random places, head high and ears pricked. His voice was astonishingly deep and resonant for such a small pony and it reverberated through his body like the call of the wild to the point where occasionally, we’d attract the attentions of a wild Carneddau stallion checking out any possible opposition.
In late autumn we noticed that Storm had a protruding front tooth, a bit like Nanny McFee. The equine dentist was summoned and Storm duly sedated, his drowsy head resting on a sturdy stand so the dentist could prop his jaw open and have a good look. It looked quite a brutal procedure when the wobbly tooth was extracted but Storm didn’t flinch an inch and we couldn’t help wondering what else we needed to do to him while he was in such a dreamy state. His back teeth got a good filing down and we had instructions not to allow him to eat until the sedation had worn off, and not to ride him in a metal bit for a couple of days. I heeded the advice about the bit and decided to ride him the following day by improvising and attaching his reins to his halter. What could go wrong?
I didn’t chance riding along the road, not even for a short distance, but wandered up the Muddy Lane Bridleway onto Conwy Mountain. Storm heeded my every command, what a good boy! Even during canter he allowed me to slow his pace and change direction and I only had the clumsiest of aids since his reins were attached to his big, comfy padded halter. But then we turned for home, and, oh boy, did he have some fun with me. I had no idea he could actually gallop that fast. It was like a switch had been thrown. We set off up a gentle incline by Pen Pyra Farm at a fair canter, gathering in momentum without slowing as we turned to the right and picked up a long track across a flattish area peppered with rocks and undulations. Usually he’d slow here and we’d catch our breath, but not this time. Shallow ditches and uneven ground whizzed by at a swift pace. I shifted my weight and used alternate pulls left and right. Nope, no effect whatsoever. He was at light-speed by this time, head well down into his noseband, and some elderly guy with a dog stepped back off the track just in time. Bloody hell, love! I garbled an apology. Storm did eventually slow up, luckily just before we began to descend, although he was full of himself and jogged me all the way home. I laughed at his nerve but by the time we’d arrived back at the yard he’d lost his cockiness and just shoved me with his head. What are you talking about, what bolt? You’re making a storm out of a teacup!
When I was young I used to think that I’d be doing very well indeed if I was still riding at the age of 60. And the close of 2018 concluded 50 years in the saddle, so I’d reached a special anniversary. But rather than these times be about Disappearing Dreamscapes, it was more about rediscovering those areas of my childhood which epitomised the simple freedom of riding in the countryside. Exactly like it used to be.
About this Series
The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.
New Series Over the Hill featuring Storm: https://janruth.com/2019/05/29/over-the-hill-1/
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 6: Midnight Travels
We flew to Auckland in late February 2013, leaving behind an early spring day in Snowdonia, to arrive at the tail-end of New Zealand’s autumn. The 2012-2013 drought affected the entire North Island and the west coast of the South Island.
It was one of the most severe droughts to have impacted these areas in at least 40 years, and in some cases more like 70 years. The trip was in aid of my step-daughter’s marriage to an equine vet, culminating in a beachside ceremony on the beautiful Coromandel. But before all of that, a taste of riding the farm boundaries, Kiwi style. A few days later, a couple of hours’ drive south of Auckland saw us head out through the small township of Huntly in the Waikato district (much like small-town America) and into miles of deserted, tinder-dry brown landscape out towards Raglan Bay. A long, long way from the green green grass of Conwy Valley.The horses were most certainly crossed with a heavy draft type – Clydesdale, Percheron, or Irish Draft – with the infusion of a lighter breed like Arab or Thoroughbred.
My allotted beast, a well-muscled bright bay, was as sensible as he was strong, calm, and sure-footed. In looks at least, he had me in mind of the Cleveland Bay, an old-fashioned Yorkshire breed used mostly for driving or fox hunting. Hunting of all types is commonplace in New Zealand. Much of the traditions and protocol of English fox hunting applies, although it’s more likely that the quarry will be hare or wild boar. Farms and indeed many homesteads are so remote life is pretty much reliant on farming and self-sufficiency, although hunting is equally enjoyed for recreational purposes.We had no trouble eating and enjoying all of the home-produced beef, and the fish and shellfish caught, gutted, and cooked by our Kiwi hosts. In the rural areas there is less reliance on shops, less choice of commodities, and much of the country has a feel of how parts of the UK probably functioned in the fifties. I found this deeply appealing but the one aspect which did surprise me was because the country is so young compared to the UK, the lack of history had me feel strangely homesick for our ancient heritage and those miles of drystone walls. As is the case for our own corner of Wales and the farming communities, historical backgrounds are what shape the people as well as the country, and I hadn’t realised quite how much I was emotionally rooted in my adoptive country. North Wales is astonishingly compact compared to New Zealand. There are vast, vast acres between properties and roads, much of which is featureless. The countryside is generally not as accessible as the UK and any boundary fences up for jumping out hunting with horses, will almost certainly be constructed of wire. After all, New Zealand is the real Mordor, the land of extremes, and outdoor adventures are not for sissies.
I’d left the UK in the midst of writing Silver Rain and later, much of the New Zealand landscape and character found its way into the story. I did intend to write a travel blog too, but that never happened and many of my impressions manifested themselves as short stories instead in A Long Way from Home. In other book matters I continued an email conversation with my new cover designer about Midnight Sky. It was a difficult book to pin down, image wise. The two professional bodies I’d dealt with at the time of writing were conflicted. The agent who was half-interested in this novel suggested less equestrian references in order to ‘sell’ it as a straight romance, and the other, in a more advisory, editorial capacity wanted more, believing it better placed as a niche product. Both believed their versions to be more commercial. The agent declined the book in the end as is the nature of the publishing beast. My original homemade cover didn’t really sell the book, but then my branding hadn’t developed by then, either. The cover we settled on whilst I was in New Zealand did relatively well, but the third cover – once I’d extricated myself from a bad publishing deal in 2016 – was the one which really worked for the material. So much so I wrote the sequel, Palomino Sky, with a lot more confidence, perhaps because I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I included as much equine detail as deemed necessary to enrich the story.
After four weeks away in New Zealand with flying visits to Australia and Singapore en-route, we were tired and ready for the cooler temperatures of North Wales. Exhausted by the time we finally reached Manchester International Airport, I just about had the wherewithal to call the taxi firm to confirm our ride back to North Wales. The driver warned us that we might not be able to get to Conwy because of the snow. We laughed. It was March, springtime! We imagined not only did our body clocks need time to readjust, but after 90% humidity in Singapore, our temperature gauges probably did too. Forty minutes later and we hit crawling traffic around Chester, aghast at the volume of snow piled-up at the side of the roads and smothering the fields. Once finally home after a slow journey along slushy roads, we were devastated to learn the full impact of a sudden, massive snowfall across the Carneddau. Sheep and new lambs, and half of the wild ponies from Aber and Llanfairfechan were buried beneath drifts. Local farmers had spent days and nights digging out animals. Over half of the ponies had frozen to death. Natural disasters are part and parcel of farming and rural life, but the cruel prettiness of our mountains had never felt quite so brutal.
Spring eventually arrived in a guise we all recognised and I resumed my quest for a horse to ride. Occasionally, through 2012 and 2013 I rode with Willington Hall Riding Centre, Tarporley, Cheshire. Close to Delamere Forest, Kelsall Hill Farm Ride, and the Sandstone Trail, the drive over was worth the journey if there was a forest ride in the running but more often than not, the farm ride seemed more popular. Farm rides are a man-made equestrian leisure complex with cross-country fences, gallops, and training areas. I’ve no objection to popping over the odd natural obstacle whilst out and about, but the artificial nature of farm rides don’t really tick my boxes. On the occasions we did venture into Delamere Forest I enjoyed the company of Charlie, a robust very forward chap (sometimes a bit too forward) and Penny, a particularly agreeable grey mare. The forest is the largest area of woodland in the country and provides plenty of scope for long rides. We regularly became lost in the maze of tree-lined paths, bridleways, and dense forestry and it was always a great mini-adventure, but the combination of travelling and pinning down the right ride at the right time (the forest rides were very much restricted to dry ground) began to feel impossible and infrequent. And then in April of 2013 I came across Pennant Park Riding Centre, Whitford, Holywell.
This yard had inherited some of the horses and ponies from the aforementioned Coachman’s, and Whitford represented an easy forty-minute drive into Flintshire. In terms of bridleways and quaint villages – and Mostyn Farm Ride, should you be so inclined – this hidden gem of an area had a lot going for it. The yard itself was maintained to a very high standard, but my suspicions were mostly confirmed that the riding itself was geared very much towards novice riders and children, and their mix of cobs and ponies reflected this. However, I really enjoyed Simona and once, the rather handsome Tom. During the school holidays there was a trip to Mostyn Farm Ride, a pub ride, and a beach ride to Talacre but with nervous, less-able riders in the mix these trips didn’t really work. And I much preferred the natural countryside around Whitford with its historical buildings, country lanes and criss-cross of old bridleways.
The name Mostyn has strong connections to Flintshire and Llandudno, the family name going back some 500 years. Despite the strong presence of the Pennant family, Mostyn Estates remain the oldest landholding institution in Wales and soon took stakes in Whitford through marriage. Opposite the lodge house to Mostyn Estates Sawmill, lies a long grass slightly uphill bridleway – perfect for a canter – and a likely route the family from the ‘big house’ would take to the village church. An impressive area of managed estate land sits in-between this bridleway and the village, and affords plenty of attractive off-road riding. The proprietor always accompanied me on these hacks and initially, seemed keen to oblige with two-hourly rides and even explore new territory across Halkyn Mountain. This all sounded promising but I noted with some trepidation that there was an indoor school under construction and sadly, any commitment seemed to fade rapidly as the summer progressed. By the time daylight saving hours had crept in at the end of October, the hacking had politely tailed off. I certainly wasn’t new to this pattern of events, in fact I almost expected it, but this time around I did feel especially cheated and defeated.
I was running out of options. Someone suggested Cae Hic Livery and Riding Centre, Ffordd y Blaenau, Treuddyn. This meant over an hour of driving for me so not worth the trip unless riding for at least two or three hours. I took a private riding assessment on a black cob mare called Kirby. Thereafter followed three years of three-hourly rides every three weeks. Initially, I didn’t take to the black mare at all, but arranged a ride on Seamus. Smooth, with a big stride Seamus ate up half a mile of bridleway in a strong canter. Great! The Coed Talon bridleway was a former railway line and the long, level track bordered by trees and streaking across part of a watery nature reserve proved pretty good for riding through all seasons. The first occasion was late autumn and especially scenic down to the variety of trees. In summer-time it was like riding through a green tunnel, wild garlic so profuse it lay like snow drifts along the edge.
Real snow happened, too. On this occasion, the ground was on the hard side so we discounted the alternative destination to Nercwys Forest, imagining the heavy shade would further compromise the icy ground conditions. We were a sizeable group. Horses and riders had been cooped up for too long down to poor weather, and we were looking forward to some Christmas fun. I was riding Ernie, the-fastest-milk-horse-in-the-west. An ex-racer, he was tall and sleek with a slightly discombobulated trot. But Ernie hadn’t been trained to trot, he’d been trained to gallop, and it really was his best stride. Cool-headed, he was always chilled when the other horses jostled for position, knowing full well he could outrun the lot. The track looked icy here and there, with random frozen puddles. We set off, carefully. No overtaking. A long line of jogging horses, all of them tail-gating. As we began to canter, eyes peeled for ice, the horses strung out and Ernie found his stride. We skimmed over a big frozen puddle and for a heart-stopping moment he lost some traction. The guy behind me shouted out but I couldn’t stop, didn’t dare look round. Miraculously we all made it to the end, faces flushed, horses steaming.
But it was Little Jack the pure Haflinger who really challenged Ernie’s fleet feet. A pretty chestnut boy with a full flaxen mane and tail, Little Jack stood around 14.2. Pony-size really, so straight away one is lulled into a false sense of security, but I’d witnessed his performance on Talacre beach… Hence, I was a cautious participant when on this occasion we partnered each other along Coed Talon. All good, until we made that fateful decision to simply turn round at the end and gallop back the way we’d come. Bored with waiting whilst we discussed the finer points, Little Jack suddenly burst into action as if catapulted. No polite warning, not even a paw at the ground or an impatient toss of the head. Trees and ditches whizzed by at a rate of knots, the ground a blur, hoof beats a galloping staccato. There was nothing I could do to slow him, let alone stop. Aware of his personality via Colin’s stories, I knew it would be pretty pointless trying to pull him up. I settled-in for the duration and crouched low over Jack’s neck, quickly deciding that going with the flow was the safest option, although I dreaded meeting someone or something, head-on at such breakneck speed. Worst case scenario would be pedestrians walking in the same direction wearing earpieces, and maybe pushing a double buggy with excitable dogs tied to the handle… but no, the track was mercifully clear. Jack shied at the wooden bench to the right, then shied at a bird taking flight to the left, but motored on relentless, eyes bulging like Bambi’s, ears aerodynamically flat against the side of his pretty head. I could hear the others pounding behind me. Someone shouted my name, asked if I was ok? I yelled in the affirmative but warned whoever it was not to come up too close or God forbid, try to pass me! I was determined to stop Jack before he decided he wanted to stop, and I did just about manage it, using my body weight the second he showed signs of slowing. No harm done and we did laugh on the way home but Little Jack changed his name to Little-Tenna-Lady-Boy for a while.
Longer rides happened in Necwys Forest or sometimes Coed Talon was made into a longer loop by incorporating part of Hope Mountain. The forest was some fifty minutes away but there were plenty of rideable tracks once inside. Colin’s routes always made full use of the forest terrain (until the council saw fit to incorporate several tons of hardcore onto some of the main tributaries, making for an uncomfortably hard surface). To break the long ride back along endless single-track lanes, we’d sometimes take a byway which afforded long, fast canters all the way to the top. Our shaky start forgotten, Kirby soon grew to be my favourite for these excursions. The mare was a different character once out of the school – much like myself – and I found a kindred spirit. A trot so smooth one didn’t even need to rise, a strong canter, brakes. But freedom-wise the beach remained the best place to canter and gallop and Talacre fitted the bill for this. Tacking-up excited horses in a beach car park – amusement arcades and a bingo caller within earshot – is no mean feat. 58, make them wait. I was 58 at the time, and Ginger wasn’t up for much waiting.
On another occasion I rode Tyson the slim coloured cob in exchange for Paddy. Paddy and I didn’t get on. This is what happens with age, one discovers weak areas at the most inopportune times. I’d never ridden Paddy before and horses big in the barrel and sporting a rolling gait, often made me feel insecure in the saddle and put a strain on my lower back. As a result I couldn’t get a handle on this horse at all as he ploughed across the sand and leapt through water inlets, but a kind soul swapped with me and I clambered onto Tyson instead. Thereafter we had a magical, sunlit afternoon; cantering through the surf at the edge of the incoming tide and sending up sprays of seawater over each other. Sliding down deep, soft sand-hills and racing across the rippled sand before heading back towards the lighthouse.
One summer, a group of us headed over to the aforementioned Kelsall Hill Farm Ride. We set off in high spirits, the old horse box lurching along at a leisurely pace with six horses swaying in the back. Kelsall is a slick operation, not as pretty as Mostyn Farm Ride, but the acres of clean space is undeniable. As the smart trailers began to arrive, disgorging immaculate thoroughbreds and hunters for training and exercise, we tacked-up our hairy cobs round the back of the manure-splattered lorry. On unfamiliar ground, the horses were all as high as kites and Tyson lived up to his name. A strong horse, he proved a serious handful at being held back when some of the other riders made use of the cross-country instruction from Sarah. The water splash was fun, no casualties. Then a calm interlude through a wooded area before we got to the wide, beautifully managed grass gallops – where all the horses thought they were in the Grand National. Little Jack, and Sarah’s competition horse ridden by Chinese Chris, fronted the group while Colin, our in-house ex-paramedic, ran behind with the first-aid box. We powered up a hill in a tight group, powered down the other side with a few whoops, then executed a tight left-hand turn which came upon us all too quickly and made for much hilarity. Whilst other, more manicured horses went gracefully about their business, we were a bit like an oversized version of Thelwell. It still makes me smile and it’s a reminder of how important it is to push the walls of our comfort zones from time to time.
But then the inevitable happened when Cae Hic acquired an indoor school, and that old familiar shift kicked-in. After three great years, travelling distance and ride arrangements began to feel inhibitive for the first time. Much like my publishing journey, catering for the non-mass market is hard from both sides of the fence and one has to be ready to take the negatives. There’s always a price to pay for individuality and I’d fallen through a gap in the market yet again, trapped in an equine twilight zone. I wanted what I perceived to be the most simple of disciplines; a willing equine companion and some countryside. I didn’t have the resources or especially want the full commitment which came with owning my own horse, but I wasn’t ready to give up on something I’d loved for over forty years. It was a conundrum which alternated between me fearing I probably should give up, and then feeling depressed that I was about to draw such a permanent line. There was fear too, fear that if I stopped for any length of time at this stage of my life, I’d lose something precious. Not so much physically, but mentally. We all know that learning new things becomes more difficult as time goes on, but confidence is also an especially tricky beast to handle. If you don’t use it, you can lose it. For women, it takes a hit when we become mothers, which I guess is part of our survival mechanism but then it takes another, more complicated hit after the menopause. Physical stuff, too. I hurt my foot in 2015. No, not doing anything even mildly risky or interesting. I was hanging out the washing and slipped backwards off a tiny step. And no, no alcohol had been consumed. I continued to drive to Treuddyn to ride Kirby, then because my foot still felt quite sore after a fortnight, I decided to get it x-rayed. The radiographer told me I’d broken my metatarsal bone and asked what I’d been doing to look after this injury because now it was a displaced fracture. Suitably admonished, I admitted I hadn’t felt the need to do anything, not even the need to take a painkiller. I was strapped into a plaster boot on the spot, and diagnosed with borderline osteoporosis a few months later.
Inevitably a new, whiny voice crept in, reminding me that I do in fact have a limit. I’m fit, but I’m not as agile as I used to be, reactions can be a split-second slower and sometimes, that’s all it takes to hit the ground. But rather than be anxious about breaking bones, I was more scared of being forced to take up knitting or deep-clean the cupboards. A lot of women my age and still riding are either confirmed horse-owners, or happy to join those coffee-morning rides to refresh their skills for an hour once a week in a safe, controlled environment. I can’t yet envisage a time when a safe, controlled environment might appeal to me. So I began the search yet again for the missing piece of the jigsaw. A piece of me. Out of ideas but not of energy or enthusiasm, I looked to my community instead and discovered something which challenged all of my equestrian experience to date. Not only did it present something a bit left-field, but I like to think it also offered me a slice of Karma, too.
Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-7/
About this Series
The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.